Rebel Wilson’s Erasure of Queen Latifah, an Icon Hiding in Plain Sight
Stereo Williams on the Queen that so many of us—including Rebel Wilson—foolishly take for granted.
Queen Latifah deserves so much more love.
The famed rapper/actress/mogul was a topic of conversation this week thanks to a bit of revisionist history from actress/comedian Rebel Wilson. Wilson’s romantic comedy Isn’t It Romantic? is due out in February, and she gushed about her upcoming film on Ellen.
“I’m proud to be the first-ever plus-sized girl to be the star of a romantic comedy,” Wilson said to host Ellen DeGeneres.
Wilson also wrote on Instagram, “I’m proud to be the first plus size girl to be the lead in a studio rom-com. PLUS this is the first movie I get a producer credit on.”
Wilson’s proclamation was immediately met with pushback across social media, as commentators pointed out that stars like Mo’Nique and Queen Latifah have been starring in romantic comedies for years now.
When a fan pointed out via Twitter that “Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique have both played romcom leads” prior to Wilson, the actress responded with:
“Hey girl! Yeah I of course know of these movies but it was questionable as to whether: 1. Technically those actresses were plus size when filming those movies or 2. Technically those films are catorgorized/billed [sic] as a studio rom-com with a sole lead. So there’s a slight grey area.”
It’s clear where that “grey area” lies. Latifah became a go-to rom-com actress in the early 2000s. She was a woman of color who didn’t have the typical “it girl” body type while so many black actresses still were marginalized by mainstream Hollywood when it came to romance films. The rom-com is a way to build box office bankability, and for many black actresses there’s the hurdle of race that keeps such films from being the kind of successes that can launch one into the pop-culture stratosphere. Rom-coms like The Best Man and Brown Sugar are classics of the genre, but because they weren’t white casts for white audiences, they’re treated as niche.
Latifah starred in Beauty Shop, Last Holiday and Just Wright, breaking the mold for the kind of female lead that could carry those kinds of movies. But because so much of white American already views blackness through a marginal lens, and because mainstream America rarely considers how body issues affect black women specifically, you see this kind of erasure when plus-sized black women break through. They’re usually not celebrated as groundbreakers re: body image—that’s reserved for when white women do it.
When Roseanne debuted in 1988, pundits raved the dawn of a new kind of woman on mainstream American television. Not only was star Roseanne Barr outspokenly “blue collar,” but much was made over the fact that she didn’t look like the standard TV lead. But Nell Carter had been the star of her own sitcom for most of the ‘80s. Carter was a vivacious performer on the stage and small screen, and a generation grew up watching her on Gimme a Break! The premise of a black woman as housekeeper to a suburban white family won’t ever not be uncomfortable, but it’s worth noting that Carter’s performance on the show wasn’t a mammy stereotype—she was a fully-formed woman, with a thriving love life and compelling relationships outside of the house where she worked. She was a plus-sized woman who has been obscured in pop culture. We should all bemoan this, because for many, this was the first time a black woman like her was on their TV screens as more than a punchline. She should be recognized for that.
Melissa McCarthy’s rise was also hailed as an important development for changing the types of women Hollywood grants A-list status—and McCarthy’s success is certainly significant. McCarthy first rose to fame in the early 2000s on the WB hit Gilmore Girls, around the same time Mo’Nique was the co-lead on UPN’s The Parkers, a sitcom that debuted the year before and featured two plus-sized women. The comedy legend was also top-billed in the 2006 rom-com Phat Girlz and won an Oscar in 2009—all before Bridesmaids catapulted McCarthy to international superstardom.
And for Queen Latifah, Rebel Wilson’s omission is another example of how this multi-talented performer is often damned with faint praise. She’s an icon—but she’s also much more.
As an artist, Latifah’s stylistically broad discography is treated like a footnote to her omnipresent celebrity. But she’s crafted stellar albums—from the freewheeling Native Tongues messaging of her All Hail the Queen debut, to the laid-back boom-bap of 1993’s Black Reign and her accomplished turn as a singer of standards on 2004’s Grammy-nominated The Dana Owens Album. But the general public doesn’t elevate those albums in the way that so many of her male contemporaries and female disciples have been. It’s a two-headed problem: Latifah is part of that comparatively obscured 1986-1993 period of hip-hop star. Media and fans have relegated most rappers who emerged before The Chronic to one-dimensional historical signposts, and that oversimplified indifference affects the way the public sees Queen Latifah the rapper.
As an actress, she has a spotty-but-enviable resume, and it’s hard not to admire how wide-ranging she has been onscreen. There’s her star-making performance as the trigger-happy wild card Cleo in 1996’s Set It Off, her Oscar-nominated turn in Chicago, regrettable fare like the hit Bringing Down the House and the not-quite-a-hit Taxi, alongside powerful work for HBO like Life Support and her dream project, 2015’s acclaimed Bessie Smith biopic, Bessie, in which Latifah poured herself into the role of the legendary blues singer. And, obviously, that string of romantic comedies. No one should need to be reminded of all that Queen Latifah has done—it’s all happened right in front of us. Her greatness hides in plain sight.
Queen Latifah has a certain omnipresence as a celebrity that’s a testament to both how hard she’s worked in the 30 years she’s been in the spotlight and her wide-ranging appeal. That ubiquity seems to lead many to take the woman born Dana Owens for granted—as an actress, as a recording artist, as a boundary-breaker and as a businesswoman. She’s been kicking down doors and making it look easy since 1988—but make no mistake, Latifah is a remarkable force in art and entertainment. She broke through hip-hop misogyny. She broke through Hollywood racism. And she’s broken through the body-obsessed beauty industry. She’s the epitome of “groundbreaking.”
There is no “grey area,” just more white bias.